Tunisia: Ministers gather in Sousse to remember victims

British, French, German and Tunisian ministers condemn Islamic State

British home secretary Theresa May, Tunisian interior minister Mohamed Najem Gharsalli, German interior minister Thomas de Maizière and French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve give a press conference in the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Port el Kantaoui, on the outskirts of Sousse. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

The interior ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Tunisia gathered to lay flowers in memory of 38 foreign tourists who were slaughtered last Friday and to express their determination to conquer Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that claimed responsibility for the massacre.

"Tunisia is a symbol of what is possible," said British home secretary Theresa May, referring to the fact that Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" started, is the only Arab country to have made a successful transition to democracy.

The meeting in the resort “has shown the determination we all have to fight against this perverted ideology that is causing death and destruction”, Ms May continued. “What happened here last Friday was a despicable act of cruelty.”

Gunman Seifeddine Rezgui who was shot dead by police after leaving the hotel after the massacre in Tunisia. Photograph: PA.

Earlier, British prime minister David Cameron told BBC Radio 4 that the fight against Islamic State was "the struggle of our lifetime". The British leader said: "They have declared war on us . . . With unity, purpose, resolve and determination, we can beat these people."


Downing Street said all Britons injured in the attack would be brought home within 24 hours. An RAF C17 transport aircraft left Oxfordshire yesterday to evacuate casualties. Although the majority of victims were British, Ms May said there was no reason to believe that Britain was specifically targeted.

The Tunisian government desperately wants reassurance that Europe will continue to support its fledgling democracy and bruised economy. “We share the same principles and objectives,” interior minister Najem Gharsalli said, flanked by his European counterparts.

The Tunisian government will deploy 1,000 armed police in 692 hotels, Mr Gharsalli said. There were “several other measures which cannot be divulged”.

Four days after the beach attack, confusion surrounds possible accomplices of the gunman, Seifeddine Rezgui, who was shot dead by police when he walked out of the hotel after the massacre.

Mr Gharsalli initially said police had arrested one person who “will be judged according to the norms of human rights”. A few minutes later, he said: “We have arrested several people of Tunisian nationality. I cannot give their identity or number.”

Steve Johnson, a retired British police officer, told the BBC he saw a second gunman in red shorts, from an adjacent rooftop where he had fled with other hotel guests. When Johnson subsequently told a Tunisian officer about the second gunman, he was told, “Yes, we have killed the man in the red shorts as well.” Johnson saw a partially covered body of a man in red shorts in a hotel corridor, and believes it was the gunman.

Eye-witness reports that one or more members of the Tunisian security forces might have stopped the massacre but did not have also sown confusion. In one version, national guards approached the shore in a speedboat but hesitated to land because they did not know how many assailants were at work.

They may have handed a weapon to a civilian who tried to pursue Rezgui, but did not know how to fire it. In another version, an armed policeman who was pursuing Rezgui tripped on a beach umbrella and fell. A civilian picked up the weapon but did not know how to use it.

Mr Gharsalli thanked the European ministers for not changing their travel warnings on Tunisia. Britain, which is believed to have lost at least 30 citizens, still lists most of Tunisia, including the Sousse area where the massacre occurred, as “green”.

The north central mountains near the Algerian border where jihadists are believed to hide are “orange” for caution, while the southeastern border with Libya is “red” for “no-go”. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs continues to urge “extreme caution” on the part of citizens travelling to Tunisia.

Ms May said the foreign office is reassessing the travel warning. Tobias Ellwood, the minister for the Middle East at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, who called on British tourists in Kantawi hotels, admitted there was a delicate balance between supporting the Tunisian tourism industry and being honest with one's citizens.

“I lost my brother in the Bali bombing, so I am sensitive to the question,” Mr Ellwood said. “Do you allow one madman to change the reputation of a tourist resort? We must be resilient.”

The German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said that although each country must make its own travel recommendations, “It would be good if we had the same type of recommendations. We will work closely together to have the same line or similar wording.”

The European cabinet ministers repeated the same words in Kantawi: determination, democracy, liberty. They thanked brave hotel staff who risked their lives to protect guests. But none offered a convincing argument as to how IS could be vanquished.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor